Antarctica is the world’s southernmost continent, more than 9,000 miles from the United States and the size of the continental U.S. and Mexico combined. Yet, for much of recorded history, no one was really sure if it even existed.
Even when the first serious research began there in the early to mid-20th century, Antarctica was, at best, a scientific curiosity -- something so distant from the temperate regions where most people live that it “mattered” to only a relative handful of people, all of them men.
But over the past half century, all of that has changed. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty and 50th anniversary of the first female research team to deploy to Antarctica.
It also heralds the beginning of an unprecedented international campaign, supported in the U.S. by the National Science Foundation, to understand how quickly a massive glacier might collapse and what that would mean for global sea levels.
NSF’s role in polar science can be understood only by tracing the history of an unprecedented international agreement, the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed 60 years ago, on Dec. 1, 1959, in Washington D.C.
Against the backdrop of Cold War tensions, 12 nations–Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom, and the United States–agreed to set aside their often contentious territorial claims on the frozen continent and established Antarctica as a place for peaceful coexistence to facilitate scientific research by all nations.
The treaty is remarkable, in part for its scope, but also for its brevity. Contained in a mere 12 pages is the governance of a continent covering nearly 9% of Earth’s landmass. The treaty’s four main points froze territorial claims to the continent, outlawed nuclear weapons and waste on the continent, preserved the entire region south of 60 degrees south latitude for peaceful science, and outlawed military actions, making it effectively the first nuclear-arms control agreement in history.
While other federal agencies, most notably the U.S. Department of State, play a major role in meeting the nation’s overall Treaty requirements, NSF manages the United States Antarctic Program to meet the nation’s treaty obligations to maintain an active scientific presence on the continent.
In that framework, NSF has mounted many previous international scientific campaigns, in fields from astrophysics to ice-core drilling, many of which would be too ambitious for any one nation to mount alone, with partners such as Belgium, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and many others.
This year, another ambitious project, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, supported jointly by NSF and the British Antarctic Surveys and the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council, will begin deploying researchers to a Florida-sized zone of ice that, in effect, holds back the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Over the past 30 years, the amount of ice flowing out of the Thwaites Glacier has nearly doubled. Warm ocean water from the Amundsen Sea circulates under the ice, causing it to melt. Melting loosens the ice from the bedrock below, causing it to flow faster and eventually to retreat into the deeper and thicker ice areas where it is likely to speed up still more.
Over the next five years, as part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, teams of scientists will explore the ocean and marine sediments, measure currents flowing toward the deep ice, and examine the stretching, bending, and grinding of the glacier over the landscape below. The project will involve more than 60 scientists and students.
The stakes are global: Should the Thwaites collapse -- and scientists presently have no idea how long such a collapse might take, whether decades or centuries -- the ice released into the sea could raise global sea levels by as much as 11 feet.
Yet, even as scientists prepared to take to the field to better define this foreboding scenario, another Antarctic milestone was being celebrated: the integration, 50 years ago, of women into what was once the exclusively male domain of Antarctic research.
In 1969, four female researchers from Ohio State University traveled to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, an ice-free region of the continent, opening doors for many others to follow.
In October this year, the Byrd Polar Research and Climate Center hosted a special symposium to commemorate that important milestone. A keynote speaker at that meeting was NSF's Kelly K. Falkner, who heads the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Although alone at the podium, she is far from alone among women in senior leadership positions in Antarctic research. Other leaders at NSF include Alex Isern, who heads the Program’s Antarctic Sciences Section; Stephanie Short, who heads the Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics Section; and Renee Crain, who heads the Polar Environment Safety and Health section.
Jamielyn Thompson is the deputy commander of Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica, JTF-SFA, which provide logistical support to the Antarctic Program. And the commander of the 109th Airlift wing of the N.Y. Air National Guard, which flies as part of JTF-SFA is Col. Michele Kilgore.
Many women have led key large-scale Antarctic research projects as principal investigators in recent decades, and roughly a third of the employees of the agency’s Antarctic logistics support contractor are women.
Perhaps fittingly, at the same time that Falkner was speaking, two female alumni of the Antarctic Program, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, were performing the first spacewalk with an all-woman team.
Antarctica today remains far from the U.S., but it is no longer far from the center of scientific importance, nor is it an all-male domain.